Stevens v. Rite Aid: A lesson on the ADA

22 May

Human resources professionals can use employee management software to ensure ADA and EEOC guidelines are met.

Recently, a licensed pharmacist named Christopher Stevens was fired by his employer, Rite Aid. The Society for Human Resource Management reported the company claimed Stevens' refusal to perform specific duties  on the job led to his termination. However, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found Rite Aid in violation of both the Americans with Disabilities Act and the New York State Human Rights Law. In January, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York awarded Stevens a total of $2.6 million.

Where did Rite Aid go wrong?
Stevens has been working as a pharmacist and pharmacy manager in upstate New York for almost 40 years. In 1977, when Stevens started his career, administering immunizations to customers was not part of the pharmacist's job description. This sat well with Stevens, as he suffers from trypanophobia, or a crippling fear of needles.

Law 360 reported Rite Aid bought Eckerd Pharmacy, where Stevens worked in Utica, New York, in 2007. As flu shots became more popular in recent years, Rite Aid made the decision to offer the immunizations at pharmacies around the country. This meant pharmacists would have to inject customers with immunizations after attending a training program to become certified to do so.

Stevens received an email with the immunization certification information in March 2011, requesting his presence at an upcoming training session. His doctor swiftly provided Rite Aid's human resource department and district managers with documents outlining the pharmacist's trypanophobia. Needles and injections caused Stevens to sweat profusely, grow anxious and experience a sharp decrease in blood pressure. In addition to the doctor's letter, SHRM noted Steven's asked for a reasonable accommodation from Rite Aid, which would have provided him an alternative work environment or task to administering immunizations.

Federal regulation compliance issues 
As outlined in the Americans with Disabilities Act, employers cannot discriminate against workers in the public accommodation sector, among others, due to disabilities. ADA and the EEOC define disabilities as both mental and physical ailments that limit fundamental actions, such as walking, talking or hearing. Disabilities can also include chronic illnesses, either currently present or in remission.

Rather than offering a reasonable accommodation, Rite Aid sent another training session notification to Stevens and asked for clarification on the contents of the doctor's note regarding trypanophobia. The doctor informed Rite Aid having Stevens administer flu shots would be a danger to both patients and the pharmacist himself.

In August 2011, the district pharmacy manager, HR manager and district manager for Rite Aid told Stevens in person he would be fired if he did not complete the training. Stevens was let go five days later.

The EEOC investigation
The EEOC took a look into the situation after Stevens filed a claim. The organization found Rite Aid had in fact discriminated against the pharmacist's disability and fired him unlawfully. The EEOC also found giving customers immunization injections wasn't a vital aspect of Stevens' position with the company, nor does the state of New York require a licensed pharmacist be able to give injections.

The jury awarded a total of $2.6 million to Stevens. Broken down, that amount is comprised of:

  • Back pay: $485,633 for work that could have been completed had Rite Aid allowed Stevens to work
  • Front pay: $1.23 million for employment discrimination
  • Emotional distress damages: $900,000 for causing mental anguish or stress

The jury did not, however, award any punitive damages in the case. According to Legal Match, this is likely due to the fact that Rite Aid broke or altered a contract, an action which does not result in punitive damages. Stevens also suffered no physical harm, which is typically when juries decide to award punitive damages.

What could Rite Aid have done differently?
No company wants a public lawsuit that concludes with a disgruntled, distressed employee and a big ADA compliance failure on record. Businesses want their employees to be happy, successful contributors to the organization. A strategic human resource management system can help large corporations like Rite Aid better handle these tricky scenarios and communicate with workers to understand their unique situations. Employers must be informed of any and all nuances as they apply to the ADA, EEOC and Department of Labor guidelines. These stipulations are hard to keep track of, and without excellent tools to help organize employees and changing job descriptions, businesses could end up paying fines on a regular basis. 

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